Divine command theory
Many people believe that things are morally good or bad, or morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited, solely because of God’s will or commands.
Ideas of this kind are known as examples of ‘divine command theory’.
Divine command theory is attractive for various reasons, which I discuss below, But even leaving aside problems about people disagreeing about what exactly is God’s will, the many different religions in the world etc, it is conceptually flawed.
The big conceptual flaw was pointed out a long time ago, most famously by Plato, in what has become known as ‘the Euthyphro Dilemma’. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a simple, nasty little question which gets divine command theorists into all sorts of bother.The Euthryphro Dilemma
The dilemma can be posed to the divine command theorist like this: “Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”
Or like this:Taking x to be any act agreed to be morally wrong (eg. child murder), then
(Horn 1) does God say that x is wrong because it is wrong; or
(Horn 2) is x wrong only because God says it is?
The divine command theorist must reject the first horn immediately, since if God only decrees that x is wrong because it is wrong, then there must be something inherently wrong about x. So we don’t need God for x to be wrong, morals don’t come solely from God, and divine command theory is incorrect.
So he must concentrate on the second horn: x is wrong because God says it is.Problems with Horn 2
Unlike the first horn, Horn 2 is logically compatible with divine command theory, but it leads to some awkward problems. In order of increasing awkwardness, these include:The emptiness problem:
if x is good because God says x is good, then the normal moral claims that believers make about God are empty tautologies. Statements such as “God is good”, “God’s commands are good” and “God’s actions are good” are trivial, true but devoid of content.The problem of arbitrariness:
if x is wrong only because God says it is, then God must have decided this on a pure whim. It must have been a 50/50 toss up. So murdering random children could just have easily been right as wrong. This must be so because if God had any reason to favour x being wrong rather than right, there must be something about x which would lead him to favour it. So morals wouldn’t come solely from God’s will and we’re back to the first horn of the dilemma, and divine command theory is incorrect.
This problem leads us to….The problem of abhorrent commands:
If x is wrong only because God says it is, then we’re open to the possibility that literally anything, from rape to genocide, would become morally right if God willed it. Yet a simple thought experiment suggests that most of us, if told by God that child murder was now a moral imperative and we ought to do it as much as possible, would reject God’s command. We’d say: ‘God’s got it wrong this time. Child murder is just plain wrong, whatever He says.” We’d be looking elsewhere for our morals. And if we can look elsewhere for our morals, then divine command theory must be incorrect.Attempts to answer these problems
A simple strategy for the divine command theorist is just to accept these problems. For example, William of Ockham (he of the Razor) just accepted that yes, God could change His mind tomorrow, make virtue a vice and vice a virtue and if He decreed that child murder was a moral imperative, then we’d all have to get out there and start slaughtering the kids.
But unsurprisingly, most divine command theorists would rather avoid this conclusion. They therefore attempt to find a Third Way: to show that this is a ‘false dilemma’ – offering only two alternatives, when in fact there are three.
When I’ve come across Third Way explanations, they have all been presented with so much tortuous theological subtlety and nuance that I have initially been left quite baffled, but essentially they tend to boil down to any of three variations:Third Way v1: God’s nature.
This is the Thomas Aquinas answer, and goes along the lines of: moral goodness is an essential part of God’s nature, of what it means to be God, and behaving morally brings us closer to God’s nature. Thus morality is not willed by God, but it is part of God.
The trouble with this being that once the theological debris is cleared and you understand what it is they’re getting at, you find yourself right back at the first horn. If goodness is part of God’s nature, then goodness is not something God has any control over, and divine command theory is incorrect.Third Way v2: Levels of morality.
There are ‘levels of goodness’, so that what God tells us is moral is contingent upon his decision, but there might be another level of morality above that: a ‘morality of the Gods’, which God can choose to refer to. (This was Orrin Judd’s argument). This take might conceivably eliminate the arbitrariness problem and the emptiness problem. But it also seems to have the worst of both worlds: there exists morality beyond the control of God (impaling us on the first horn). And the morality we’re interested in – human morality – is once more at the whim of God, and we’re still exposed to the problem of abhorrent commands.Third Way v3: Necessary versus contingent morality.
This has been argued by philosopher Richard Swinburne. According to his theory, God can decide to create the world in many different ways, each of which grounds a particular set of contingent values; with regard to these, then, the divine command theory is the correct explanation. Certain values, however, such as the immorality of murder or rape, are necessary, and hold in all possible worlds. So it makes no sense to say that God could have created them differently
Again, this runs into problems. First, how can we maintain a clear distinction between necessary and contingent moral values? Second, it seems to considerably weaken God’s ability to determine morality, and thus impale itself on the first horn.The fundamental conceptual problem with Divine Command Theory
Wittgenstein is a trendy but notoriously elusive philosopher. But if people have heard anything about him, they’ve often heard of his ‘Private Language Argument’
The crux of the Private Language Argument
is that linguistic utterances can only have any meaning if there are rules. And rules only make sense if there is more than one user of the rules. In other words, it takes two to tango.
Suppose I were to keep a private diary of my sensations, and upon having a sensation, I call it ‘S’, and then every time afterwards that I have this sensation I say ‘That was S’. What have I achieved? I can neither be right or wrong about calling it S, because without some sort of objectively agreed rules about using ‘S’, there is no criteria for correctness. I cannot agree rules by myself.
There are parallels here with divine command theory. A single rational being cannot originate consistent moral rules, if He himself is both the originator of the rules and of the rationale by which they are to be judged. It doesn’t carry any meaning for God to say ‘Murder is wrong’ if He is both the source of the command, and of the meaning of ‘wrong’. Consistent rules only have any meaning if they are used, and used by more than one rational being.Why divine command theory is nonetheless attractive
Divine command theorists want two perfectly understandable things. Firstly, they want some firm, objective grounding for morality that makes absolute moral relativism impossible.
Second, they want final justice. They want the bad guys who got away with it in this life to get their comeuppance in the next, and the good guys who suffered to get a reward. And with final justice comes deterrence against immoral behaviour, and incentive towards good behaviour.Where morals really come from
Unfortunately, ‘God says it’ doesn’t do the first job. Conceptually it makes no sense, as the Euthyphro dilemma shows, and practically it is useless – throughout the world, within a religion, even within your local church nobody remotely agrees about everything that God wants.
So will anything do the job to perfection? Possibly not. Yet we all make moral judgements, and we all seem to pretty much agree about the biggies (murder, rape, theft etc), and nobody with any sense likes free-for-all relativism (ie. if p thinks x is right, then x must be right). How can this be?
‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are adjectives we apply to actions, behaviours and people, using our own moral judgements. We can apply them correctly or incorrectly, just as we can correctly or incorrectly apply adjectives like “red” or “black” to billiard balls.
These moral judgements probably come from various sources, including: an innate sense developed in evolution, manifesting itself in empathy and remorse; parental teaching; societal and religious instruction; reasoning; and above all, what works to enable us to get along together.
What makes it correct or incorrect to apply ‘good’ or ‘evil’? What is the ‘grounding’ for these judgements, if we all make them using our own moral sense? A similar thing to what makes it correct or incorrect to call that ball “red”: humans have agreed it in order to get along and understand each other.
Does this mean that morality doesn’t exist? No, it exists - but perhaps it’s not ‘floating in the breeze’ as the divine command theorist.
Does it mean that morality is purely relativistic? No. Somebody who thinks an instance of murder is ‘right’, is as incorrect as a colourblind person who calls that red ball ‘blue’, even if he sees it as blue. He just doesn’t get it: he doesn't understand the rules. There are immoral or amoral people out there. We can identify them and we call the worst ‘sociopaths’ and we lock them up.
Without God, is there anything ‘solid’ enough to stop me behaving immorally? Yes – such as my conscience and the threat of punishment by society.
So it is perfectly possible to have a solid grounding for objective morality without relying on divine command. Indeed, that is how it works.
As for final justice, sadly here we can’t help the divine command theorist. That’s just the way it is: bad guys don’t get their comeuppance in the next life. It’s a pity but there it is.But what really bugs divine command theorists…
…is the idea that if divine command theory is wrong, then morally speaking, anything goes. We’re in a big free-for-all. To which the answer is, obviously, look around you: it is wrong and anything doesn’t go.
To which the divine command theorist will reply: but if it were widely believed that divine command theory is wrong, then anything would go.
To which the answer is: speak for yourself.